The Road Not Taken
Back in the mid-’60s Stokely Carmichael won a faction fight within the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) against John Lewis and others that made the civil rights group all black. It was a blow to white activists like myself. Carmichael made the point that we should be doing similar work organizing among poor and exploited white people. That was a good point. His reasons for making it were no doubt complex. Carmichael’s subsequent career as an advocate of black power and identity politics was, in my view, a theatrical dead end—militant-sounding but in reality a retreat from confronting the foundations of élite power in America. Whether his advice was correct or not, the world of white radical activism, by and large, did not follow it. Now the chickens have come to roost.
Over the decades since, white, blue-collar workers have increasingly drifted away from what they used to think of as their New Deal Democratic Party. They felt abandoned and were right about that. The drift became tidal this election. While there are many reasons, the systematic despoiling of the industrial working class—not by some set of impersonal abstractions like History, Technology, and Progress, but by the connivance of financial and industrial élites abetted by their political enablers in both parties—has produced a deep-seated anti-elitism and even nascent anti-capitalism. Trump, feigning solidarity with their plight, rode that accumulated anger, sense of loss, and existential panic into the White House. Bernie Sanders engaged that incipient insurgency as well. But the DNC command centers shut that down. In doing so, they enjoyed considerable support from far wider circles of social liberals. These folks live in a galaxy removed from fly-over America, more than faintly bemused and repelled by its cultural backwardness, and out of touch with its pain and suffering.
Why so walled off, why was the road not taken? With respect to the upper echelons of the Democratic Party, that’s hardly a difficult question to answer. For a variety of reasons, moral as well as political—especially the enormous pressures they were feeling from the African-American uprisings in the sixties—they were prepared belatedly to adopt the battle for formal equality as their own. Substantive equality was another matter entirely, however. That would require major restructuring of the division of wealth and income and a redirection of the flow of investment capital, things so beyond the pale for élites of both parties that they were and remain unthinkable. So it was that the March for Jobs and Freedom, once conceived by at least some of its architects—including John Lewis—as both racial and labor movement, soon learned to efface the labor question.
Allies once, allies from then on. Much of the top-drawer liberal constituency felt most comfortable in pursuing the crusade for racial justice cleansed of the sharecropper dust and dirt Lewis trailed with him to the Lincoln Memorial, which gave off the strong odor of class conflict. If the “limousine liberal” élite met resistance to that crusade from working and lower middle class people, it was easier to blame it on “white racism.” It was a credible charge, after all, because there was plenty of it. And it immunized the liberal powers that be from their more profound culpability for the steadily worsening lot of blue-collar America, and from any prospect that they might have to pay to remedy it.
But this too became the default position of the wider progressive world. It was simultaneously consoling, dangerously delusional, and catnip for a growing self-righteousness. Not paying attention to what was going on in heartland de-industrialized America could be excused by labeling it hopelessly racist. Now, of course, we need to reckon with the discomfiting reality that substantially more blue-collar people living behind the “blue wall” voted for Obama in both his presidential elections than they did for Clinton. Whatever else one might say about him, Obama represented some faint hope of change in their relentlessly deteriorating condition (perhaps, ironically, precisely because he was black), while everyone out there in Middle America, where Wall Street had become anathema, knew it was home base for Hillary. Meanwhile, perceiving the white blue-collar universe in this way allowed a world of upwardly mobile professionals, creatives, academics, think-tankers, and so on to adopt a sanctimonious air of heroic self-congratulation. Partisans of the good fight for formal equality, joined in that fight by the high and mighty, they could feel connected, politically hip, hip more generally.
Connected to what? Not to the ghetto. Rather to a black middle class which had grown exponentially since the War on Poverty, a war that provided a welcome exit ramp for a substantial but still slivery segment of Afro-America. More and more, the ties of this newly empowered African-American islet—a web of associations defined by career, residential geography, political affiliations, and a deepening ideological assimilation concealed beneath a veneer of militant-seeming identity politics—that milieu also found its comfort zone inside a Democratic Party their white counterparts already inhabited. This is the story of the latter-day John Lewis. This is the story of the black élite’s fatal attraction to Hillary Clinton. The ghetto doesn’t show up in these precincts. The “march for jobs” is over with, but we can all join hands and hallelujah the “march for freedom” so long as it doesn’t intrude on the freedom of property to do what it will. Hell, even the staunchest conservative has memorized the lines from King’s dream speech and can sing “We Shall Overcome.”
Comrades in this kumbaya get-together included the labor leadership. Facing the scorched earth of its de-industrialized homeland, the labor movement’s leaders tagged along behind their neoliberal patrons. Organized labor became a pathetic semblance of its former self, living in fear it might be isolated from the corridors of power, and so thereby isolated itself from its native constituency, without which its power was a figment of its own imagination (fifty percent of union households voted for Trump). In a perverse reversal of identity politics, we now speak of a “white working class” (where “white” is the empowered word, and class a sign of derogation) but not of a black working class; instead, African-Americans are referred to as if their needs and objectives were seamlessly tribal.
A half-century of silence about the “labor question” was rudely interrupted by Bernie Sanders. Perhaps not in a way that would conform to the ideological rules as laid down by socialism. But, given the context, what a breakthrough. A segment of Trump’s blue collar following—no one can know how large—found in him a twisted expression of their own simmering anti-capitalism. Did they also harbor uglier emotions? Of course, but that’s why in an earlier crisis socialist and communists struggled with the Nazis in Germany to win the allegiance of overlapping working- and lower middle-class constituents. Many who just yesterday voted for “the Donald” would have voted for Sanders, a clear take-away lesson from the primaries. The task now is to build a multi-cultural anti-capitalism that can no longer be propitiated by an equality that nonetheless leaves most people powerless.
STEVE FRASER's latest book is The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America (New York: Basic Books, 2016).